Two students sue Amherst, saying preliminary council election disenfranchises them

  • The University of Massachusetts Amherst campus Courtesy photo

Staff Writer
Published: 7/26/2018 10:52:54 PM

AMHERST — Two University of Massachusetts students are seeking an injunction that would prevent Amherst from holding a preliminary election for positions on the Town Council on Sept. 4.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of UMass senior Caitlin Cullen, an elected Town Meeting member who intends to graduate in December, and UMass sophomore Lily Tang, who is an Amherst voter, was filed Thursday in Hampshire Superior Court by Paul Rudof and Ryan M. Schiff of the law firm of Elkins, Auer, Rudof and Schiff of Northampton.

According to a statement issued by the attorneys, the lawsuit was necessary because the current election calendar means the entire preliminary campaign is being held while nearly all of the 25,000 undergraduates who attend UMass are out of town.

“This suit seeks to ensure the legitimacy of Amherst’s first-ever Town Council by making sure that all of Amherst’s voters have an equal opportunity to select its members,” the statement reads.

The lawsuit contends that the election schedule violates the rights of students to run for elected office under Article 9 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights and violates their right to vote under Articles 3 and 9 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights and the 14th and 26th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

The lawsuit suggests two alternatives that could satisfy these concerns.

The first is the alternative election schedule included in the adopted charter in which potential candidates would have until Oct. 22 to return their nomination papers, with a preliminary election Dec. 11 and a final election Jan. 24.

The second is to forgo the preliminary election, and provide for additional time for residents to submit nomination papers, and allow all qualified candidates to appear on the final election ballot on Nov. 6.

A hearing on the lawsuit is expected within the next seven to 10 days.

Reached by phone, Schiff said his office would have no additional comment.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said the town and its attorneys, KP Law, believe they are on strong legal ground.

“We are confident that no one’s rights are being violated by this election schedule. In fact, the dates were selected to enhance voter turnout,” Bockelman said.

Bockelman said KP Law is reviewing the request for a preliminary injunction and the associated materials.

He observed that the major goal of the Amherst Charter Commission was to empower voters, and it did so by setting the initial Town Council election on the dates of the 2018 state primary and general election, when turnout would be significantly higher than in separate, off-cycle, local elections.

Andy Churchill, the former chairman of the Charter Commission, said no one raised objections to the election calendar when the charter documents were being prepared, and the issue of the schedule was thoroughly debated after the charter was adopted in March.

The preliminary election would narrow the current field of candidates from 33 to 26 in advance of the Nov. 6 state election. At the Nov. 6 election, the final 13 councilors, three elected at large and two from each of five districts, would be elected.

The calendar for the election was approved by a special Town Meeting in the spring, with 64 percent supporting the measure, and then the state Legislature OK’d the home-rule petition. Gov. Charlie Baker later signed the legislation.

The lawsuit contends that college students are unfairly affected.

For Cullen, the lawsuit notes that she determined she couldn’t mount a viable campaign with the schedule, in part because of demands on her own time as the semester was coming to an end, and students being unable to have information to make educated votes on the candidates.

“When nomination papers became available, she was in the middle of the most stressful time of the school year and busy working on significant end-of-term papers,” the lawsuit states. “Once finals and term papers were completed, almost all of her fellow students left Amherst for the summer. Even if she had been able to return the nomination papers for a seat on the Town Council, almost all of the constituents on whom she would have focused her campaign — other college students — would have been out of town until just days before the September 4th preliminary election.”

As a member of Town Meeting, Cullen voted against asking the state to have the local election coincide with the state election.

Tang’s concerns were more about her own ability to vote, because she is spending the summer in New Jersey working on a congressional campaign and there is uncertainty about where she would be living on campus and the district in which she would be voting.

“Ms. Tang would like to vote in the preliminary Town Council election on September 4. She is concerned, however, that because she will be away from Amherst all summer, she will not have any information about the people on the ballot for Town Council before the preliminary election date,” the lawsuit states. “Because the Town Council election is non-partisan, she also will not have any information about the candidates’ party affiliation. Without knowing anything about the candidates or even their political parties, she likely will not vote in the preliminary Town Council election.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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